Mistral St Nazaire
The Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok is seen at the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, France, Sept. 4, 2014. Reuters/Stephane Mahe

French President François Hollande said last week that France was halting the controversial delivery of a warship to Russia, after an international uproar over giving Russia a sophisticated weapon. But on Saturday, 200 Russian sailors departed the French port of Saint-Nazaire aboard the Mistral-class helicopter carrier, dubbed the Vladivostok, to conduct sea trials on the new ship, according to several news reports.

Russian news agency Itar-Tass said the trials will last 10 days. The trials have begun at the same time that new Western sanctions against Russia have been announced.

Hollande said “current conditions” would not allow the delivery of the ship to go ahead, but as yet the $1.6 billion contract for two ships has not been canceled.

A deal was signed in June 2011 between French shipbuilder DCNS and Russia’s state arms importer-exporter Rosoboronexport to supply two Mistral-class ships, the Vladivostok to be delivered in November and the Sevastopol in mid-2015. But Russia’s invasion of Crimea and incursions into eastern Ukraine have prompted the West to sanction the country, and the contract for the ships became a point of contention across Europe, even though the deal was not part of sanctions.

"I want to draw attention to the Mistrals, since we’ve been asked about this for weeks, months," said Hollande in a recent speech to NATO. "We were never compelled to suspend the Mistrals contract. The level of sanctions the Europeans adopted never provided for ongoing contracts being called into question. and I’ve always stuck to that."

However, an opinion piece in the Moscow Times suggested that if the deal is ultimately canceled, Russia may turn to South Korea for cooperation on similar ships -- helicopter carriers that can lead an amphibious assault operation.

Mistral Vladivostok
Labourers work on the Mistral-class helicopter carrier Vladivostok at the STX Les Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, September 4, 2014. The name has already been painted on the ship, reading VLADIVOSTOK in Cyrillic characters. Reuters / Stephane Mahe